Like many nurses, I've built an extensive network of colleagues over the years, both through my workplaces and by participating in professional associations. I treasure these relationships, many of which have blossomed into deeper friendships as we've shared professional and personal highs and lows over the years. And my network has been unexpectedly useful at times. For example, when a colleague wanted to take his mother on vacation but thought a long trip was impossible because she needed dialysis, I put him in touch with a colleague who did dialysis on cruise ships. And when a niece was injured, I called a colleague who had contacts among orthopedic nurses, who in turn recommended a good orthopedic surgeon.
Historically, networking helped build this profession. Florence Nightingale used her influential family contacts to enlist support for her work to reform military hospitals. Lillian Wald, the nurse who founded public health nursing in this country, relied on her contacts to get support for her initiatives. And it was a meeting between two nurses that led to the creation of the first American nursing organization. Ethel Bedford-Fenwick, founder of the British Nurses Association, invited American nurse Isabel Hampton (later Robb), whom she'd met on an earlier visit, to collaborate in developing a nursing section at the International Congress of Charities, Correction, and Philanthropy at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Within days, the U.S. nurses attending the event had formed the American Society of Superintendents of Training Schools for Nurses, precursor to the American Nurses Association (ANA).
Yet it seems that face-to-face networking is becoming outmoded. More and more people use online sites to find and keep in touch with colleagues, and professional nursing associations are reporting dwindling memberships and fewer attendees at annual meetings. In a 2003 membership report to the ANA House of Delegates, then executive director Linda Stierle noted that among all U.S. RNs, the percentage of ANA members has steadily decreased, from 44% in 1954 to just 6% in 2003. She also reported that 80% of nurses didn't belong to any professional organization. I doubt that number has changed much.
There are bright spots, one being the energetic National Student Nurses Association (NSNA), which has enjoyed a rising membership as nursing schools have increased enrollments. While much of its focus is on providing resources to help its members navigate school, pass a licensing exam, and secure a job, the NSNA also works hard to develop members’ knowledge and skills in organization governance. It champions networking and promotes a sense of one's responsibility to the profession. Many of its leaders have gone on to leadership positions in nursing and other health care organizations.
For some nurses, economic constraints might preclude association membership and meeting attendance. And nurses now have many other options for connecting with each other and for continuing their education locally. Still, I think not attending a national meeting is one of the biggest career mistakes one can make. These meetings provide a large-scale forum for discussing professional issues, sharing innovations, and disseminating work. They can change one's view not only of one's practice, but also of one's place as a member of this profession. The “vibe” is different from that at a local CE conference; everyone should experience it.
When I managed the National AJN Conference years ago, an attendee told me she'd been ready to quit nursing, tired of the negativity and the feeling of futility at her workplace. But coming to the conference changed this: she reconnected with former classmates, met nurses who'd dealt with similar problems in similar settings and could offer advice, and felt energized and hopeful that things could change at her hospital.
It's such networking and collegiality that helps sustain our profession and foster the dissemination and adoption of innovations. And it sustains us as individuals, whether we're new nurses seeking those first real connections or established professionals in need of support or renewal. Why not let this happen for you?